The following story is by Casey McCorry, a recent college graduate who has been working on documentaries in Los Angeles.
Last week the Supreme Court ruled against death row inmates who had sought to bar the use of a controversial lethal injection drug they said risked causing excruciating pain. The Inmates had “failed to identify an available and preferable method of execution and failed to make the case that the challenged drug entailed a substantial risk of severe pain” said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority.
Roughly a week before that South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley urged prosecutors to seek capital punishment for Dylan Roof in light of his terrorism against nine South Carolinan church-goers. And in the same week Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was formally sentenced to death and joined the federal death row community as their youngest member.
In light of the grave suffering, wavering political stances, and ruthless violence of our nation in the past month, the uproar in defense of these lives has been a hushed silence. While many issues draw Catholics to uproarious defense, the raw emotionality of this issue and the burdensome doctrine of the church proves to make the stance a bit too radical to bear. A certain delicacy is necessary when broaching the topic of mercy for lives so understandably despised, especially in compassion to their victims of violence, but Christians should have no doubt in regards to their duty. However elusive these virtues of justice and mercy are, however abhorrent and demanding it is for us to live side by side with these nefarious men and women, we must do it.
In this life we will meet many ugly men and women. The burden of suffering will be inflicted upon us many times by evil, it is unavoidable. God himself was not immune. But Christ’s witness showed us the radical love we are called to: not one in which all evil is denied or eradicated, but one in which it is transformed and redeemed by the offering up of one’s body to hateful men. Christ’s notion of justice and mercy has long been misunderstood in our present-day culture where lives are disposable and death is the greatest evil, yet to revive this witness of unwavering love, Catholics must stare evil in the face, they must embrace the ugliness that is living in this world, and they must offer themselves as a living sacrifice in the redemption of others’ souls. We must brawl for their eternal lives getting bruised, beaten, and hated in the pursuit merely for attempting to coexist with them, but as Saint Francis said,
“We have been called to heal wounds, to unite what has fallen away, and to bring home those who have lost their way. Many who seem to us to be children of the Devil will still become Christ’s disciples.”
Catholic tradition is a consistent reminder of our own barbarism. There is very little that is contemporary, crowd-pleasing, or coherent within the Catholic faith. Our trademarks are the antiquated practices, the disquieting theology, or disrobed depravity that puts many who aren’t Catholic ill at ease. We surround ourselves with the gruesome image of Christ’s crucified body, mark ourselves with ashes, fast, purge, eat Jesus’ flesh and blood, speak our worst deeds to a confessor and enact penance. We strike our chests, cry ‘Mea Culpa’s, and pray that God will “save us from the fires of Hell”. Living in extremes of human nature we are heathens, who, upon contrite reconciliation become participants in the feast of the Holy Eucharist. The slow shuffle of dozens of feet up to receive communion sounds like a chorus of unworthy children: the alcoholic father, the cheating wife, the gossiping neighbor, the selfish child, the perjurer, the vain, the pharisee, all are “unworthy for Him to enter under our roof”, and yet God calls us “child.” There is no more beautiful exhortation of Christ’s radical mercy than deigning to be our meal every Sunday, we who killed him. While other Christian practices may be the emblem of right action, we are the heraldry of the ragamuffin sinner who keeps pulling himself out of bed and falling on his knees for mercy each morning. Now if ever there were a fraternity to protect sinners, would we not be it?
In the closing of the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Sister Helen Prejean spoke unflinchingly in defense of Tsarnaev expounding on a most unpopular belief–there was more to Tsarnaev than what we knew. The unapologetic man peering through stony eyes at his victims wasn’t as one-dimensional as he appeared. She explained that through a series of meetings with him she had come to believe Tsarnaev was truly sorry and that he was not deserving of the death penalty.
I can’t speak to the veracity of her claims and I applaud her chivalry in combatting popular opinion with charity but the demands of our faith require us to reconcile with even more disturbing scenarios. What if he isn’t sorry, what if he is absolutely hateful?
Catholics are known as advocates for a spectrum of disadvantaged persons in society: the uninvited fetus, the senile old man, the third-world orphan, the blue-collar worker, the unprotected immigrant, the dislikeable, disordered, misguided. Every person the world dehumanizes we leap to protect their dignity. The causes seen as uncomfortable, challenging, or sufferable, we claim for our prayers. What about the cause that makes us uncomfortable? The souls of the sinner have not been spoken for strongly enough by Christians. Too many of us cling to our politic with fear and trembling instead of the uncomfortable truth we are taught. Thomas Oden’s words aptly call Christians to task,
“The deeper irony is that the evidence of sin that are always found in and around the body of Christ may become indirect intimations of its holiness. It could not be a holy church if it had clean hands, as if severed from its task of saving sinners and healing human hurt.”
When I heard about Roof mercilessly shooting nine beautiful men and women in South Carolina I can admit there was a part of me that was so angered I wanted him dead. In these moments I can’t begin to make sense of the mercy and justice of God but I recognize that God’s eyes are different than mine. When I only see pain in the bellowing sobs of an aching mother, he inspires a miracle of her forgiveness. When I see hopeless enmity agitated by acts of racial violence, he draws unity under a single steeple. And most inconceivably when I see Dylan Roof I just see hate but Christ sees the opportunity for redemption in everybody. I can’t see with Christ’s eyes in these most harrowing circumstances but I can believe his hope to be rooted in a truth worth affirming because I know that human eyes looked upon the spiritual destitution of a dark world after a crucifixion and God’s eyes saw a resurrection.
Christ’s measures of justice and mercy from the eighth chapter of John offer profound insight into what he asks of Christians.
“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
Here the men attempt to bait Jesus into blasphemy. Much like these men, in times of anguish I want a God who will rail in anger for me against the sins of others, pick up arms, scream in rage, fight with vengeance, but what did my God do here?
“…Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.”
Thomas Aquinas and the church fathers read the verses of John finding particular significance in this moment. He kneels and draws in the ground. Kneeling in scripture implies mercy, and the Greek word used here for “write” is actually “eggrapho” a word that means “engraved.” This word is used only one other time within scripture and that is in Exodus,
“The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.” Church fathers understood this was a moment of the incarnation. Here Christ was perfecting the laws given to Moses on tablets by writing in the ground the fulfillment of the law. Before, this woman would be punished through Levitical law, but now God has torn through heaven to walk on earth and offer recompense. This was what he brought himself from heaven for, to engrave his law into our dirt and to engrave it into our hearts with the merciful forgiveness only he could offer.
In this moment Christ shows man how his economy of justice and mercy will work. Christ’s fulfillment of the laws of Moses will be this: it will be a God who humbles his intellect, grace, and purity, to walk among the selfish corruption of man. Here is a God whose new law would be written in dirt. He would write it in the place farthest from heaven. Not golden tablets, not parchment, not in the minds of the scholars, in the dirt where a sinful woman stood and sought mercy. The ground that God first wretched Adam’s body from, would be His new tablet. Written over the bodily remains of generations of sinners. Over the remains of Babylon that tumbled to the ground. The earth where thousands of depraved men and women drowned, not worthy for Noah’s ark. Over the past of the thankless Egyptians who toiled in the desert and weakly gave in to a calf. The same dirt, where his blood would fall as he watched the jeering faces of sinners whom he loved so desperately as he gasped for breath. This God who lived outside of time could see the entire tragic story of salvation history in the establishment of this new law. This dirt of the earth had seen many an evil and wretched thing. Yes, surely this nasty home of generational sin should be no place for a law of mercy. But this is precisely where the potter, Christ, engraved his law. This is Christ’s justice.
We profess a faith to God who deigned to come down and grapple with our iniquities face to face, to heal our wounds with his own hands, and to engrave in our own dirt with his fingers. He showed us how to live as humans. He showed us the greatest love was to look into the face of your own murderers and continue bleeding for them with love. To love a bomber, a ruthless bigot, a murderer, this is the work of supernatural love. When Christ said, “You will do things far greater than me,” I think this love is what he meant. It asks us to bear each others’ burdens, endure each others weaknesses, rely on each others’ strengths, forgive, inspire, repent, serve these other members of this same body.
Catholics can’t boast in their perfection, the world’s made sure of that. What we can boast in is God’s mercy, not one of us has failed to receive it. We can boast in being the church that opens the doors for sacraments and mercy to someone the world wants dead. Journey with the ugliest people in this earth, in the ugliest of places, it is the premise of Christ’s human existence.
These are things I write with a particularly misleading ease. To be sure, the beliefs of the church and its stance on the death penalty are ones which I can only hope to someday call my own. I too harbor a deep anger, resentment, and sometimes even a thirst for retribution against men who have caused significant harm and suffering in my life. I know and can understand Christ’s stance on justice for sinners but it leads one to say what about me? Where is my justice?
In C.S. Lewis’ Til We have faces the main character Orual goes through great inner turmoil, feelings of jealousy, pain, and emotional suffering. In a moment of great despair and anger she asks her particularly wise friend and mentor, “Are the God’s not just?” And in profound wisdom that answers this question for all of us he says, “Oh no child. What would become of us if they were?”
The world teaches that there is nothing worse than death and to live in suffering or discomfort must be avoided at all costs. But Christians know this to be a lie because death can bring us to eternal rest, and suffering can purify us, and the truly greatest evil is to never know God. The justice of the victims of the South Carolinan shooting was made manifest in their response to Dylan Roof’s act of hatred.
Anthony Thompson, a relative of one of the victims Myra Thompson, told Roof at a bond hearing to turn to Jesus Christ.
“I forgive you and my family forgives you,” he said. The daughter of Ethel Lance said,
“You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again. “I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you. And [may God] have mercy on your soul.”
Men like Roof and Tsarnaev have never known God like the Thompsons have known God, like Ms. Lance, or myself. What a poverty. Love is always attacked but never ruined because the resurrections God inspires every day take slow root in the hearts of all sorrowful believers. And that is our justice. The hearts of those beautiful families in South Carolina and Boston may be bleeding for years. They may suffer years of trauma, stolen joy, and broken families, but Roof or Tsarnaev will never steal their faith. They will never steal their prayers to Christ. They will never steal their eternities in heaven. They can never steal whatever it is that made them radically speak out in the spirit of forgiveness. That is the justice of the victim, and our mercy is to wish for the lives of all men so that they too may know Christ.
The question this may lead one to ask Christ is why he let us live in a world where such men run rampant? Where evil men live and where the demands of love are extreme and supernatural. Why must life be this hard? And the answer is always a love that is incomprehensibly difficult to endure. His answer is the comforting words whispered from the cross,
“It is finished”